Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Christians, Muslims, and the "Liberation" of the Holy Land

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Christians, Muslims, and the "Liberation" of the Holy Land

Article excerpt


But after the creation of the world, with the exception of the mystery of the cross of salvation, what greater miracle has been enacted than what has occurred in our own day, namely, the journey of our Jerusalemites? 1

With this intimation of the uncommon nature of his subject, Robert the Monk, the Benedictine prior of Senuc, begins his account of the achievements of the great expeditionary force which is now called the First Crusade. The army, which was of unprecedented size, is reckoned to have numbered between 50,000 and 60,000 armed combatants.2 In 1096 the main body left points in western Europe and remustered at Constantinople in the spring of 1097. At this point, those who had survived the march had covered a distance of approximately 2400 kilometers.3 From Constantinople, they advanced in a path of bloody destruction through Anatolia, northern Syria, and Palestine, and in June, 1099, drew up before the walls of Jerusalem occupied now by the Egyptian Fatimids. The soldiers of Christ, the milites Christi, as the crusaders were called, had reached their destination, but of the original combatants, only 13,000 had survived to savor the success.4 Their siege of the holy city was hard-fought, but on July 15 they scaled the rampart and the Egyptian defense collapsed.

The crusaders' capture of Christ's holy city of Jerusalem was a victory of unprecedented magnitude, and it quickly became the subject of historical narratives written between 1099 and 1108 both by those who had campaigned, such as Fulcher of Chartres,5 Raymond of Aguilers,6 Peter lidebode,7 and an anonymous Norman from south Italy,8 and by those such as Robert the Monk,9 Baudri of Dol,10 and Guibert of Nogent11 who had not. While these historians evince a lively diversity in style and sophistication of historical understanding,12 they share the crucially important views that the crusaders' capture of Jerusalem vindicated Christianity over paganism, and that the city's capture had been a religious liberation achieved through acts of meritorious brutality.

In his account, Robert the Monk boasts that for Godfrey of Bouillon and a certain Guicherius, the capture of Jerusalem afforded an unprecedented and welcome opportunity for killing. "They clove countless human bodies from head to toe," Robert says, and "pierced them through both their sides."13 At the same time, however, he is careful to indicate that the indiscriminate killing of Jerusalem's inhabitants was not the prerogative simply of these two heroes. "Not one of our men," Robert says approvingly, "was lethargic, not one was squeamish. 14 Warming to his subject, Robert deploys the language of the abbatoir. The confused and panicked victims offered little effective resistance. Some, escaping the butchery and slaughter, retreated into the temple of Solomon only to be surrounded and massacred. The streets and squares of the holy city flowed with blood and body parts. In fact, Robert enthuses, "arms and severed hands floated about on the gore and were joined up with other bodies; the result was that no one could discover which arms should be joined with which body."15 Fulcher of Chartres evinces a similarly close interest in the details of the carnage. The Muslims trapped on the roof of the Temple of Solomon provided easy targets for the Christian archers, and he calmly estimates that 10,000 were struck down and beheaded.16 He describes the rivers of blood that stained the Christian ankles, and he compares the terrified victims to "rotten apples falling from their shaken branches" and to "acorns tumbling from swaying oaks."17

In the accounts of both Robert and Fulcher, there is, undoubtedly, an element of exaggeration both of the crusaders' ingenious methods of slaughter and of the numbers who perished. It is known, in fact, that there were Jewish and Muslim survivors. Some of these, the Muslims particularly, fled as refugees mainly to Syria and Egypt, 18 and many of the Jews were ransomed to the Jewish community at Ascalon. …

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